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Mithali & Co ready for a leap into unknown in return to Tests

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Mithali Raj, India’s captain and talisman, would know how rare and precious a Test match is. In her career that spans 20 years, wherein she has accumulated a raft of records in her sphere, Mithali has featured in just 10 Tests, of which two have come in the last 14 years. She would add two more to her haul in the next four months, one apiece against England and Australia, the latter a pink-ball encounter. Understandably, there is a sense of renewal and a surge of excitement.

Eight of her teammates know what it is to play, and more importantly win, a Test match, as they were part of the group that thrashed South Africa by an innings and 34 runs in Mysore in 2014. But even for them, it would seem like ages ago. For the rest, it would be a leap into the dark, despite their swathes of experience in white-ball cricket.

But they are not daunted by the prospect of decoding an unfamiliar format in unsettling climes, Mithali says. Rather they should soak in the atmosphere. “They should have an idea of how historic it is to play Test cricket and how important it is to keep the format alive for the future generation,” she said.

The bigger picture, the revival of women’s Test cricket, is not lost on her either. “Having two back-to-back Test matches, touring England and Australia, can give a lot of exposure to the current lot and if that can be carried forward in the coming years, it will be great for the sport. Continuity is important for the group of players,” the skipper stressed. Inarguably, for the format too.

Her England counterpart Heather Knight, too, feels much the same, that it’s the pinnacle and ultimate test of their skills, but one that’s in dire need of revival. “It’s really important that we keep Test cricket going. Realistically, T20 is the sport that’s going to grow women’s cricket around the world and we’ve seen that over the last five years, but I’d love to see the multi-format series that we do for the Ashes as the norm going forward,” she had said in a press conference last month.

Rare outing

It’s the forgotten format, tucked invisibly between the white-ball formats. Since India’s last Test, only two Test matches have ever been played, both featuring Australia and England. South Africa have never played since then; women from New Zealand, Pakistan and West Indies have not played a Test since either, though they are regulars in white-ball cricket. The dwindling stature of Test cricket has come at a time when women’s white-ball cricket has vaulted to unforeseen heights. The T20 World Cup in Australia was a smashing success, drawing an audience more than ever before. The Women’s Big Bash League too is consumed ravenously. Women cricketers are getting recognition as well as appreciation, besides financial stability, yet Test cricket has remained largely neglected.

In this context, coach Ramesh Powar was accurate in saying that “the girls are ready for the new format.”

Realistically, it’s akin to a new format. Forget Test matches, they hardly play multi-day formats even at the domestic level. Both Powar and Mithali, though dwell on the brighter side. “They will be without the baggage of the past,” she says. Powar chimes in, “There will be more excitement and motivation. Slowly and steadily, we would make progress, and we have kept an open mind and we will take things as they pan out,”

It would be no different for the England team too, as they have played just two Test matches in the last seven years themselves. The flip side to this proposition, the prospect of two teams not sure how to play Test cricket, unsure of the demands of the format, is a contest diluted in standards. Hence, there is more at stake than winning for Mithali’s troops in the next four months. The quality of these games will go a long way in deciding the future of women’s Test cricket.

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